This debate isn’t a new one, essentially its a variation of a conversation I’ve been having, in different incarnations, for several years.
It keeps re-emerging, I suppose, because I’m somehow unable to resolve it within myself.
In Footsteps in the Dark #3 I wrote ‘cultural/political’ on the perceived split between cultural and political activism; primarily in the context of feminist activism and riot grrrl: the underground feminist punk community in which I cut my teeth.
The central tension was the weighing up of the worth of cultural activism vs politics ‘proper’: of third wave feminism v’s second wave. It asked if music and cultural communities really could change the world. Underneath laid the demands; are you doing enough? Really? Are you worthy enough?
I think about my friends sense of guilt as a PhD student researching riot grrrl and popular music in a Gender Studies department where she worked alongside researchers writing on sex work, infant mortality in the developing world, genital mutilation; the big stuff, the ‘proper’ stuff. In such a context it is sometimes hard to justify the importance of a focus on critical cultural communities, but I believe creating accessible alternative spaces can be key in stimulating political awakening, inciting, perhaps indirectly, a chain of events, connections and ideas whose impact is immeasurable. This certainly happened in my life, in the lives of many of my friends.
Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), writing about rock camp for girls talks eloquently about this in terms of music making-
‘When girls are allowed to let go and not be called crazy, or yell without being called angry, then they learn that the world they live in is limitless or at least that the possibilities are. Girls discover that they draw, that they can be heard. And you don’t have to yell: you can stand onstage and sing the prettiest, quietest song, commanding an entire room with yr voice. To reach the back of the room and beyond with a sound you create, that will change yr world. You have to be able to imagine that you are bigger than you are, especially when girls are usually taught to be smaller, both literally and figuratively. It all comes back to making a sound, making a noise. If you are lucky enough to hear it, you will be moved. If you are even luckier and you get to make the sound, you will be forever changed’
Sat in the Contact Theatre in Manchester for Future Everything listening to a very *odd* presentation on Ludic Interfaces- I wandered face first back into these debates. I work in the arts: and am particularly interested in play, gaming and discovery, but with some reservations.
That day the Contact seethed with privilege: in the safe cocoon of the venue; boys played with their i-phones and we explored academic discussion on arts, technology and performativity…
And don’t get me wrong- because part of me loved it. Parts of me get excited by ideas, theory, by intregating the accepted ways we view the world (then ripping that to shreds). The points where experience, knowledge and application are pushed to their limit and newness emerges is a great place to stand.
But the tension became clear as I left the venue – straight out into the streets of manchester, where junkies asked me for money, and the world limped on with the same old desperate struggles for survival.
Maybe the issue is that the left is puritan at roots: A focus on the importance of hard work, frugality and…dare I say, a lack of humour. This is a hard mindset to get away from. ‘There are important things in the world we need to fix – and could you please -just.stop.playing.around. You can indulge yrself in being an artist after the revolution’.
There IS so much which needs to change- and on the days where injustice and stupidity overwhelms me; I think maybe I should just give it up; this clinging to the importance of cultural activity (activism?). Go and dedicate myself to women’s aid work or something and shut the fuck up whining.
Because ultimately there is something about the idea of play – be it playing music, playing games, playing with ideas and images – in this context, which makes me profoundly uneasy. Maybe its just my age, I’m too young and inexperienced to accept this without feeling so god damn guilty all the time.
I don’t think because I demand art/cultural production to be political I want it to be obviously, dogmatically so. So much ‘political’ art is just plain ‘bad art’. So this isn’t my answer. And if Nazis were better patrons of the arts than the Communists (or perhaps a better comparison is socialists), where does this leave those on the left who make the argument that the arts is important because it is ennobling etc etc?
And I’m sorry but I don’t have the answers to this. Yet.
But in honesty I know I won’t give it up, ever. It’s in my blood, for better or for worse. Because I think there is something about creating and participating in arts, literature and music which has incomparable potential to connect us to humanity, community and the world around us.
I don’t think it can ever be a choice between cultural and political activity (if such a split even exists) – both have to grapple for importance in our busy lives. Sometimes I think that it is better to concentrate on one thing: and do that well: than scatter yrself in a million different directions and burn yourself out. And sometimes I think that it is not. Like I said I don’t have the answers. Yet.
But. Art does not have to be directly Political to be political. Can beauty be political? Can debate be political, can a encouragement to look at the world from different perspectives be political?
Yes, yes, and always: yes.
P.s If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of yr revolution…Fact.